The Capitol Dome

Fall 2014

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T he United States Capitol in 1801 was the largest and most ambitious building program on the continent—and it was much more than that. e Capitol would symbolize the young nation's high ideals as a free democratic republic and it would be an architectural model for the growing country. It also was America's first grand effort to build a modern building of such huge scale. President omas Jefferson and Surveyor of Public Build - ings B. Henry Latrobe (see p. 38 for portrait) worked together with a rare synergy to build the Capitol between 1803 and 1809, and by the time James Madison came to office, the Capi- tol was functioning as America's first world stage. But it didn't last long. In August 1814, British troops attacked Washington and burned the Capitol—as well as the other public buildings in Washington City. Latrobe's main interi- ors were destroyed, including the famous Hall of the House of Representatives. e Statue of Liberty that presided over the Hall was disintegrated. Because of the haste for reconstruc- tion beginning in 1815, and the unself-consciousness of the age, the design history of the Capitol between 1803 and 1809 to the War of 1812 is scant. No topographical images exist of Latrobe's rich neoclassical interiors. When I first came to this story, I was frustrated by the lack of visual evidence. Jefferson had suggested it might be the "handsomest" room in the world—but was it? Latrobe himself touched on the crux of the problem when he wrote: "To give an adequate description of a building unaccompanied by draw - ings, is always a vain attempt." In an effort to revisit the lost masterpieces of the Jefferson- Madison-era Capitol, I've recreated much of the design using digital technology. To me, this is a type of treasure hunt. Behind the actual design and construction of the Jefferson- The M ost Beautiful Room in the World? Latrobe, Jefferson, and the First Capitol By Richard Chenoweth, AIA THE CAPITOL DOME 24

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